March 1 is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of 2017’s Lent season, a 40-day period dedicated to reflection, prayer and fasting ahead of Easter.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and many other Christians will have ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of a cross. People generally wear the ashes — which symbolize penance, mourning and mortality — throughout the day to publicly express their faith and penance.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made from the burning of palms blessed in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, when Christians carry palms to recognize the Gospels’ reference to Jesus’s path being covered in palm fronds on the day he entered Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, churches bless and hand out palm fronds that come from distributors in tropical and subtropical climates, according to Catholic Online. In the U.S., many palm suppliers, based primarily in Florida, Texas, California and other warm parts of the country, provide fresh palms to nearly 18,000 Catholic parishes before Palm Sunday, Catholic Online reported. Church-goers wave the palm leaves to mark the feast day that begins Holy Week.
The following year, the fronds are burned to create the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are usually mixed with Holy Water or oil, and carry the scent of incense.
Those observing Lent will typically fast on Ash Wednesday by eating only one large meal or two small meals that do not contain any meat. Many Catholics will also give up something or adjust an ingrained habit during the 40 days before Easter.